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Unforgiving Years Paperback – February 19, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Born in Brussels of Russian revolutionary exiles, Serge (1890–1947) has long had a reputation as polemicist and journalist, but this powerful novel of the descent into WWII makes a strong case for his political fiction. In the pressured atmosphere just preceding the outbreak of war, a secret agent, D., breaks with the Organization—Stalin's spy network—and escapes from Paris with his lover, Nadine. With extreme paranoia that he cloaks in exquisite manners, D. tells only one person where they are going: an old comrade named Daria. In the next, flash-forward section, Daria, having been arrested, is released from exile in a Soviet backwater and thrust into the siege of Leningrad. The third section opens in 1945 Berlin, where Daria witnesses a host of Germans, injured and half crazy, try to survive aerial bombardment—a moment that, as W.G. Sebald noted, has been deeply underserved by literature. In the final section, Daria escapes Europe and follows D. and Nadine to Mexico, escaping (she thinks) the long reach of Stalin's agents. Serge remains sophisticated even during the book's more noirish moments, and action sequences form an inseparable part of his hypnotic, prophetic vision. (Nov.)
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"Unforgiving Years, published in France in 1971 and translated into English this year, is a visionary literary work rooted in the political tragedy of a Soviet secret agent who tries to take back his existence from the Party. The settings are prewar Paris, the siege of Leningrad, the fall of Berlin, and a postwar refuge in Mexico. This is the ultimate farewell to Communism." --The Boston Globe


"The Unforgiving Years...has now at last been translated into electric English by the indefatigable Richard Greeman...It's a seething, hallucinatory novel..." --Harper's


"Born in Brussels of Russian revolutionary exiles, Serge (1890-1947) has long had a reputation as polemicist and journalist, but this powerful novel of the descent into WWII makes a strong case for his political fiction...Serge remains sophisticated even during the book's more noirish moments, and action sequences form an inseparable part of his hypnotic, prophetic vision." --Publisher's Weekly (Starred Reveiw)


“The work of the writer Victor Serge faultlessly captures the labyrinth of bureaucratic incrimination into which the Soviet Union descended.” –The Atlantic


“A witness to revolution and reaction in Europe between the wars, Serge searingly evoked the epochal hopes and shattering setbacks of a generation of leftists…Yet under the bleakest of conditions, Serge’s optimism, his humane sympathies and generous spirit, never waned. A radical misfit, no faction, no sect could contain him; he inhabited a lonely no-man’s-land all his own. These qualities are precisely what make him such an inspiring, even moving figure.” –Bookforum


"Both Unforgiving Years and The Case of Comrade Tulayev in 2003 have been wonderfully translated by Richard Greeman, who has spent his academic and post-academic life bringing to prominence Serge’s writings as literature in the first ranks of modernism and in the mainstream of Russian and French literature. His foreword to Unforgiving Years is worth the price of the book, which deserves attention as well for reminding us that the political novel was once a prominent genre and fulfilled a need hard to meet in this self-absorbed literary period. It also gives us a clear-eyed picture of Serge’s sad last years when hope, if it existed at all, was mostly the frail hope of inmates in prisons and concentration camps." -World Socialist Web Site


“A worker, a militant, an intellectual, an internationalist by experience and conviction, an inveterate optimist, and always poor…He took part in three revolutions, spent a decade in captivity, published more than thirty books and left behind thousands of pages of unpublished manuscripts, correspondence and articles. He was born into one political exile, died in another, and was politically active in seven countries. His life was spent in permanent political opposition…His refusal to surrender to either the Soviet state or the capitalist West assured his marginality and consigned him to a life of persecution and poverty. Despite living in the shadows, Serge’s work and his life amount to a corrective to Stalinism, and an alternative to the market.” –Susan Weissman, Victor Serge


“I know of no other writer with whom Serge can be very usefully compared. The essence of the man and his books is to be found in his attitude to the truth. There have of course been many scrupulously honest writers. But for Serge the value of the truth extended far beyond the simple (or complex) telling of it.” –John Berger


"Serge, who has been championed by Susan Sontag and many others, was born in Brussels in 1899 to emigre Russians who'd fled the Czar. He became a political activist, was jailed and arrived in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevik Revolution. He rose high in the Comintern before falling foul of Stalin and finding himself in jail and then exile. He was steamrolled by history, and out of this experience he crafted a series of extraordinary memoirs and novels. "Unforgiving Years," here translated into English for the first time by Richard Greeman, tells the story of two revolutionaries, D and his friend Daria, as they approach, endure and survive World War II. This is downbeat and dangerous mise-en-scene...written for real by a man who was there." —Los Angeles Times

"Serge can recognize the range of experience and responses that make up the texture of life in even the most nightmarishly repressive system." --Scott McLemee


Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (February 19, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590172477
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590172476
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #336,560 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Victor Serge (1889-1947) is best known as a novelist - with two of his works recently republished by the New York Review of Books - and for his Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Originally a participant in the anarchist movement, Serge became a committed bolshevik upon arrival in Russia during 1919 and lent his considerable talents to the cause of spreading the revolution across Europe. An eloquent critic of tyranny no matter its form, Serge was a leading member of the Left Opposition in its struggle against Stalin, a cause which ultimately resulted in his exile from Russia.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Lonya VINE VOICE on March 13, 2008
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and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison." Heinrich Heine

Victor Serge did not have to invent entirely new beasts to pen his vision of the Second World War in the "Unforgiving Years". The beasts that were unleashed by the 20th century's apocalypse were not Serge's creation. However, what Serge has done so masterfully here is to craft a story that looks at this world through the eyes of a few of its participants. The result is a horrific, almost hallucinatory look, at a world gone mad.

Serge was born in Brussels in 1890 to Russian emigre parents. He returned to Russia early in 1919 in order to support the newly created Soviet Union. He served as both a writer and journalist. However, Serge was one of the first of the old-line revolutionaries to oppose Stalin's concentration of power. He was arrested, expelled from the party, released, and arrested again. Finally, in 1936 after a public campaign by leading European political and literary figures (Andre Gide was one); Serge was released and deported to France. He eventually found his way to Mexico where he died, penniless, in 1947.

"Unforgiving Years" is set in four sections and in four locations. In the first section, set in Paris in the days just before the start of WWII, "Secret Agent", we are introduced to Agent D. D is a Soviet agent who has finally had enough of the purges, paranoia, and betrayal that marked Soviet life (both at home and abroad) during the height of Stalin's purges. He has no plans to defect; he simply wants to escape to some place off the grid.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By E. L. Fay on January 24, 2009
Format: Paperback
Victor Serge was the pen name of Victor Lvovich Kibalchich, born in 1890 in Brussels to impoverished anti-Czarist Russian exiles. After being expelled from Belgium for anarchist activities, he became a journalist in Paris, publishing articles for radical papers before being imprisoned in 1912 on charges of terrorism. He traveled to Spain in 1917 and participated in an attempted syndicalist uprising. By the time he finally arrived in Russia in 1919, Serge had become disenchanted with anarchism and joined the Bolsheviks. At one point, he briefly withdrew to lead a commune on an abandoned estate near Petrograd. After that failed, he went on a 1922 Comintern mission to Germany, which restored his battered pride in Russia's accomplishments. Yet he still had serious issues with the Comintern, and subsequently joined Leon Trotsky's anti-Stalinist United Opposition in 1923, which resulted in his expulsion from the Communist Party and imprisonment in 1928. Upon his release, he published three novels in Paris, only to be arrested again in Russia in 1933. He was allowed to leave in 1936 only after international protests from other prominent radicals. Now living in France, he corresponded with other anti-Stalinists, including Trotsky, and began publishing heated exposés on Stalin's regime. After Germany's invasion in 1940, he fled with his son to Mexico. He wrote two novels during this time, "The Case of Comrade Tulayev" and "Unforgiving Years," as well as "Memoirs of a Revolutionary." His years of imprisonment had damaged his health, however, and the several assassination attempts by Mexican Stalinists didn't exactly help. Broke and harassed Soviet agents, Victor Serge died in 1947 in Mexico City of a heart attack.

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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Peter Anastas on April 28, 2008
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I can't say enough about this novel. Along with Victor Serge's "The Case of Comrade Tulayev," also re-issued by New York Review Books, it represents the highest level of political fiction; that is to say, both novels are also important literature. If "Tulayev" reads like Dostoevsky on "speed," "Unforgiving Years" also has a hallucinatory quality. With mesmeric power Serge dramatizes the sense of living on the edge in a world of exile, deracination, emigration and loss. And the amazing thing is that Serge not only wrote brilliantly about the Great Terror and the subsequent "purges" under Stalin, the Spanish Civil War, and uprooted lives as a result of the ensuing world conflict, he lived everything he wrote. The result is an authenticity of person, place and event that are seldom experienced except in the finest novels of the period, among which Serge's finally take their place.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By C. Ramirez Martin on May 10, 2010
Format: Paperback
"Unforgiving Years" was Victor Serge's final & arguably intellectually the most complex of his novels. Its scope, vision & probing, even troubling search for answers in the nihilism of the Second World War sets it apart from other works on the same wave-length & topic. "Unforgiving Years" brings together Serge's own experiences as an internationalist revolutionary (regardless of what one thinks of his politics) in the places he had operated throughout his life. The novel has four distinct sections each dealing with the lives & careers of battle-hardened Soviet or Comintern (Communist International) agents, principally "D" and Daria. Each section captures the essence a world gone over the precipice. The first section, brilliantly surreal, describes Paris time-locked awaiting the outbreak of the Nazi onslaught on Europe & the catastrophe the forces of fascist-imperialism would bring with them, while "D" and the other agents try to make sense of the Thermidorian Terror back home and what their response should be, as veterans of the Bolshevik Party. Another section examines the epic & heroic 900-Day defense of the city of Leningrad by the Soviet People against overwhelming Nazi-imperialist German forces. A third section captures the conditions of German civilians under the round-the-clock bombings by the Allies. To call the novel bleak would be an understatement. There is almost a fatalism inherent in the main characters, a seeming incomprehension that the Party to which they have sworn fealty to had betrayed the very Revolution it was supposed to have defended and championed, and yet they seem hypnotically bound to it and resigned to the consequences for questioning its actions.Read more ›
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